Ruminatin’ on Women in Jazz

allison-millerOver the weekend I attended the Ballard Jazz Walk and the Ballard Jazz Festival Mainstage concert. Kudos to Matt Jorgensen, John Bishop and all of the people who worked hard to produce yet another great year of the festival. I was pleased to see some Sisters included in the Brotherhood aspect of the festival and it got me thinking about what the “Women in Jazz” thing means to me personally and my mixed feelings about it.

At the Jazz Walk on Friday I camped out at the Leif Erikson Hall and listened to the entire set by Allison Miller. This was the first time I’ve had a chance to hear Allison in over a decade. I met her when she first moved to NYC — we shared a small rehearsal space with a handful of other musicians in the Garment District of NYC, did some gigs and hit sessions together with a group of friends that included Sheryl Bailey, Lisa Parrott and other NYC newcomers. Allison’s drumming is in a category that I term “Freakishly Creative” and it has been fascinating to watch her career develop so strongly. Her set was a very loose, intriguing interpretation of her original tunes. I was mesmerized by her musicianship and assertiveness, as well as by the creativity of the group that included Cuong Vu (trumpet), Aaron Otheim (piano) and Rene Hart (bass). I also realized how much I was enjoying watching a woman instrumentalist lead a group, especially because I know her back story. Sometimes for me, it’s deeper than just being a woman musician.

sylvia-cuencaThen on Saturday, the set by alto saxophonist Gary Bartz with the George Colligan Trio was transcendent! I’ve never heard Bartz live but now I can add him to my list of Audubon Jazz Bird Sightings. Also included in this concert was the trio of Sylvia Cuenca, Essiet Essiet and Milo Peterson. They were everything I love in a rhythm section: swinging, creative, empathetic, virtuostic. Milo Peterson is one of my favorite musicians in the area — not only is he fun to hang with, I never fail to learn something from him and I’m in awe of his depth of knowledge and musicianship. I’ve heard Essiet Essiet on numerous recordings and I am always amazed to see him in action.

Sylvia Cuenca is a force of nature as well. I know her as an acquaintance from NYC because we played a few gigs and sessions together there. We’re from the same generation of women who came up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I’m always happy to see her when she’s in Seattle and have watched her build an enviable mainstream career. She is a true master of her craft and an example of no-gimmick, old-school talent and dedication…and she swings her ass off!

So this is what it looks like when strong, accomplished women instrumentalists are included in a mainstream festival. Yes, you could argue that two is a small percentage (which it is) but they are great musicians first and “Women in Jazz” second. As I was listening to each performance, I realized how much I appreciate bands that are “integrated.” More and more, I don’t like or trust things that are “all men” or “all women” — professions, schools, activities, sports, institutions — and this especially goes for music. Personally I like playing in bands that are a mix of women and men (and black and white, frankly). I like the camaraderie of playing music with women and seeing how they navigate a predominantly male environment but I also like the energy that male musicians bring to the table as well.

Finally, I appreciate efforts to bring more visibility and support to women who are slugging it out in male dominated fields but the “Women in Jazz” thing always carries the risk of being marginalized and dismissed. It can be powerful but it can be limiting as well. After spending a lot of my career in all-women groups, I’ve grown weary of the concept and my gut reaction is: “Ugh. Not again. Why can’t we just be included in the main show?”…or “I really don’t care about The Sweethearts of Rhythm”…or “Why are we still living in the ’70s with this stuff?”

I want to hang and play music with my “peeps”…and despite a fascination with Lesbian Separatism in my 20s, my peeps now are both women and men. If I see “No Girls Allowed” or “No Dudes Allowed” on any club house door, I’m gonna find me a different club house. And if you are a dude, don’t ask me if I’ve heard of “Name-of-Only-Female-Musician-You’ve-Ever-Heard” because:

a. Yes, I’ve heard of her
b. I’ve probably gigged with her
c. I don’t just listen only to female musicians

Speaking of my “peeps,” here are some more of my favorite NYC musician friends who I’ve played with or heard┬árecently on their visits to Seattle. Check them out and expand your list of Audubon Jazz Bird Sightings.

{Click on artist images to visit their website, including Allison and Sylvia. There are many other excellent women jazzers…more later!}

Claire Daly:






Sheryl Bailey:

Roberta Piket:






Anat Cohen:

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